Facebook may wait up to a week before unblocking some of the pages of hundreds of non-media organisations caught up in its news ban, while anti-vaccination content and misinformation continues to run rampant on the social media platform.
Content designated as news was blocked on Facebook in Australia on Thursday morning in response to the federal government’s news media code, which would require the tech giant to negotiate with news publishers for payment for content.
The decision continued to make waves globally on Friday, with leaders at the virtual G7 summit discussing the issue and US legislators setting out plans for a series of related antitrust bills, starting with one that would make it easier for small news organisations to negotiate with tech giants by allowing them to work as a group.
In Europe, the European Commission president urged the US to join the EU in creating “a digital economy rulebook that is valid worldwide”. Ursula von der Leyen cited the storming of the US capitol as “a turning point for our discussion on the impact social media have on our democracies”, adding: “We just cannot leave decisions, which have a huge impact on our democracies, to computer programmes without any human supervision or to the board rooms in Silicon Valley. The latest decision of Facebook regarding Australia is just another proof for that.”
In the UK, Facebook’s Vice-President for Europe, the Middle East and Africa Nicola Mendelsohn defended the decision, telling LBC that the move would establish “an unworkable precedent” and arguing that “publishers choose to put their stories on our news feed because it allows them to sell more subscriptions, it allows them to grow their audiences, and ultimately to increase advertising revenue.” She emphasised that no similar moves were likely in the UK.
But the social network was under pressure over the continued blocks on public service content affected by its action. It has blamed the situation on the government’s broad definition of what is considered to be “news” in the code. Hundreds of other pages have been barred from posting content, including health department and emergency services pages, family violence support pages, Western Australia opposition leader Zak Kirkup’s page, and even a page for mums in Sydney’s north shore.
Greg Inglis, the managing director of funeral business Picaluna, told Guardian Australia that Facebook had “killed off” his business’s page yesterday, just after he had paid for a marketing campaign on the platform.
“We’re just at the very beginning of what for us is quite a big campaign where we’re going to spend quite a bit of money on Facebook,” he said. “And the irony is that they’re cutting off the hand that feeds them. It’s just crazy so it took me two hours down a rabbit hole of trying to find somewhere on Facebook’s website where you can actually contact them.”
Inglis eventually found a live chat on Facebook where he had to explain his company was not a news business.
“I spent the first 20 minutes of that live chat trying to explain that we’re a small to medium enterprise, we are not a media organisation. He kept coming back and saying ‘yes but you published stories’. I said ‘but we’re not a publisher they’re stories about funerals, we’re a funeral business’.”
Inglis was told it could be 72 hours or more before someone would respond to the case lodged by Facebook support.
Some other pages were restored on Thursday and Friday, but Guardian Australia understands it could be up to a week before many of the pages are even reviewed.
Tim Hanslow, head of social at Preface Social Media and who also helps run the Australian Community Managers group on Facebook, told Guardian Australia he had heard from a couple of community managers who had been contacted by their Facebook representatives and were told an appeals process would be put in place for people to plead their case.
He said in a post, shared with Guardian Australia, Facebook had applied the definition of news as per the definition in the code’s legislation.
“But they are aware some pages have been incorrectly brought down by the ban. It’s clearly been done automatically. They’re compiling a list of pages incorrectly pulled down,” he said.
“An appeals process for the ban will launch on Feb 25 and you can request your page be assessed as outside the news ban. All of the government pages/sites caught up in this should be reinstated.”
Guardian Australia has sought comment from Facebook.
Australian news sites recorded a steep decline in traffic as a result of the block. Audience tracking company Nielsen reported total sessions for news content declined 16% on Thursday compared with the last six Thursdays, while total time spent declined 14%.
The company said 22% of the audience of Australian media publishers in 2020 accessed their content via the Facebook app.
Social tracking website Chartbeat also reported overnight that Australian news sites recorded a decline of more than 20% in traffic due to Facebook cutting off news sites. Prior to the change, about 15% of visits to sites within Australia were being driven by Facebook, but after the change, that had dropped to less than 5%, the company said.
Although satire sites Betoota Advocate and The Chaser were also initially hit by the ban, they managed to have the blocks removed, and as a result accounted for nine out of the Top 10 posts by Australian pages on engagement on Thursday.
The Chaser said on its Facebook page on Friday the attention had brought down the website.
“Our first foray into real journalism has been so popular it completely crashed our website. We’re beginning to understand why the Herald-Sun never publishes proper journalism.”
Also immune was the YouTube satirist Jordan Shanks, who operates under the moniker Friendlyjordies. Despite promoting himself as a comedian, Shanks has worked with the independent Australian journalist Michael West on stories about New South Wales deputy premier John Barilaro, and would probably fall under Facebook’s application of the government’s proposed definition of “news”. West’s page was hit by the news ban.
Separately, dozens of pages and groups dedicated to promoting conspiracy theories, anti-vaccination misinformation and the alt-right have continued to operate unhindered by the company’s broad-brush ban on news content.
In most cases, the groups were able to continue posting misinformation via YouTube and websites which escaped Facebook’s definition of news, profoundly reshaping how Australians consumed information on the social media behemoth.
One 7,000-member group, which is dedicated to promoting the baseless conspiracy that the 1996 Port Arthur massacre was staged, posted an edited video which uses a 2015 speech by former Liberal party senator Bill Heffernan to falsely allege the existence of a widespread pedophilia network in Australian politics. The conspiracy theory, which has become a key tenet of Australia’s QAnon community, has been shared twice since the ban was introduced.
In another Australian group, which is dedicated to vaccination misinformation, links to websites pushing that group’s agenda continued to be visible after the ban, as did posts containing false information about the soon-to-be-released Covid-19 vaccine.
Facebook’s ban also missed alt-right operators such as Avi Yemini, who has previously been banned from Facebook for hate speech and has become a key part of the growing conspiracy movement in Australia by promoting a steady stream of content linked to and shared by the anti-lockdown and anti-vaccination groups. Despite calling himself a “journalist”, Yemini and his associated pages continued to post unencumbered to his more than 100,000 followers on Friday.
Other far-right pages, including one identified by the Guardian’s hate factory investigation, which uncovered a global network of far-right hate operating for profit through Facebook, also remained unhindered.
The Australian government is trying to resolve issues with Facebook, but there is no clear timeline on when or if news media will be restored.
Federal treasurer Josh Frydenberg held his second meeting in two days with Facebook chief executive Mark Zuckerberg about the company’s ongoing issues with the code, and said on Friday the pair would talk again over the weekend.
The legislation for the code passed the House of Representatives on Wednesday night, and is expected to be debated in the Senate as soon as next week.
The prime minister, Scott Morrison, repeated that the government would not be backing down from the code.
“I would just say to Facebook: this is Australia, if you want to do business here, you work according to our rules. That is a reasonable proposition. We’re happy to listen to them on the technical issues of this, just like we listened to Google and came to a sensible arrangement,” he said.
“But the idea of shutting down the sorts of sites they did yesterday, as some sort of threat, I know how Australians react to that and I thought that was not a good move on their part.
“They should move quickly past that, come back to the table and we will sort it out.”